According to this October 9, 2009 story from the Associated Press, a lot. Here are excerpts from "Limiting malpractice lawsuits can save big":
Limits on medical malpractice lawsuits would lead doctors to order up fewer unneeded tests and save taxpayers billions more than previously thought, budget umpires for Congress said Friday in a reversal that puts the issue back in the middle of the health care debate.(Read the full text of "Limiting malpractice lawsuits can save big".)
The latest analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that government health care programs could save $41 billion over ten years if nationwide limits on jury awards for pain and suffering and other similar curbs were enacted. Those savings are nearly ten times greater than CBO estimated just last year.
...[CBO Director] Elmendorf essentially acknowledged what doctors have been arguing for years: fear of being sued leads them to practice defensive medicine. Some doctors will order a $1,500 MRI for a patient with back pain instead of a simple, $250 X-ray, just to cover themselves against the unlikely chance they'll be accused later of having missed a cancerous tumor.
...The CBO report means the malpractice issue will stay alive as the health care debate in Congress builds to a climax this year. The budget scorekeepers estimated the total effect of malpractice curbs could reduce the federal deficit by $54 billion over 10 years, once $13 billion in new tax revenues from economic ripple effects are taken into account.
Even in the health care debate, that's real money.
In my practice, I see this sort of defensive medicine all the time. The ordering physicians don't like it. The radiologists reading these unnecessary scans don't like. Insurance companies don't like it. Patients don't like it.
But as long as the current legal system punishes doctors who fail to practice this sort of defensive medicine, we'll continue to see doctors practicing that way.
(Via Bradley R. Hennenfent, M.D, who blogs at BradMD.com.)